- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2001

More air travelers are arriving on time this year at the Washington area's three major airports.

Flights into and out of both Washington Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport improved their on-time performance compared with other airports this year, while Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport dropped slightly in the rankings.

Recent government figures list flight delays nationwide, with more than one-quarter of the flights into the 11 busiest airports delayed at least 15 minutes.

BWI improved to 8th in the first five months of 2001 among the nation's 31 most congested airports, compared with 16th in the same period of 2000. Dulles ranked 12th this year, compared with 19th in the first five months of last year. Reagan National dropped to 11th from 10th in 2000.

All three of the local airports reduced the average percentage of flights that were delayed.

At Reagan National, 19.9 percent of flights were delayed in the first five months of 2001, compared with 21.9 percent in the same period of 2000. Dulles averaged 20.5 percent of its flights delayed, compared with 26.3 percent a year earlier. BWI's delays this year are averaging 18.9 percent, compared with 24.8 percent in the same period of 2000.

Local airport officials said competition among airlines is driving some of the improvement in on-time performance.

"They're cognizant of the fact they're trying to stay ahead," Harriet Sagel, spokeswoman for Maryland Aviation Administration, said of the airlines. "They're certainly customer-oriented and want to come and go as quickly as they can."

However, the factors that affect on-time performance are interdependent, making it difficult to distinguish a single issue that can explain improved performance, airport officials said. One factor is the number of flights.

"That may play a part, the amount of traffic in and out," said Tom Sullivan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He also mentioned "airline scheduling, air-traffic control and the weather" as having an influence.

When a problem arises at one airport, it can have a domino affect that spreads to other airports.

"The whole air-traffic control system is so linked that if you have delays in Chicago or Atlanta, they're going to be filtered on down the line to many other airports across the country," Mr. Sullivan said.

The airport with the greatest percentage of delays this year is Seattle's SeaTac International Airport, at which 31.3 percent of all flights were delayed. It was followed by New York's LaGuardia Airport, at 31.1 percent. The others in the top five were Los Angeles International Airport (30 percent), Boston's Logan International Airport (29.2 percent) and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (29.1 percent).

Flight delays can never completely be eliminated with the current infrastructure, Federal Aviation Administration officials said.

The number of flights is increasing quickly, but the amount of airport capacity is growing slowly. Most of the airports in the FAA report have used the same number of runways for years.

"A critical part of the solution is expansion of airport capacity," said Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosley. "There has been some addition of runways over time, but relatively little."

Congress had held hearings in which members discussed how to speed up construction of new runways. The time it takes for federal, state and local officials to grant the necessary permits can take years, resulting in an average of 10 years before new runways begin operating.

Both Dulles and BWI plan to add runways. Reagan National plans no runway additions because of space limitations.

The Transportation Department is also considering peak-hour pricing, in which airlines are charged higher landing fees during hours with the most air traffic. The goal is to even out flights throughout the day, thereby reducing congestion.

The FAA reported in April that airlines have bunched their flight schedules around peak hours at many airports to such a degree that there is no way all the airplanes can take off or land on time.

The agency tested a lottery system at LaGuardia, in which airlines were given landing slots by lottery, resulting in fewer delays. Officials are considering a similar system at other airports.

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